Guatemala | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Guatemala's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the continuing decay of political institutions, the increase of corruption and lawlessness, and the reappearance of death squads.


Late in the year, the government of President Alfonso Portillo signed an agreement to provide $400 million in compensation to the victims of the nation's 36-year civil war during which more than 200,000 died and over 200 mostly indigenous villages were destroyed. The National Compensation Program is a result of the 1996 UN-brokered peace accords and the ensuing truth commission. A senior military officer was convicted in the murder trial of human rights advocate Myrna Mack in 1990; the acquittal of two other general officers was challenged. While the civil war is over, assassinations, kidnappings, beatings, break-ins, and death threats are still common. Death squads have reappeared and hundreds of street children continue to be murdered or mutilated. President Portillo has admitted that clandestine groups with military ties exist, but claims to be powerless to combat them. Guatemala's governance problems are on the rise as corruption and lawlessness increase with impunity.

The Republic of Guatemala was established in 1839. The nation has endured a history of dictatorships, coups, and guerrilla insurgencies. Civilian rule followed the 1985 elections and a 36-year civil war ended with the signing of a peace agreement in 1996. The peace accords led to the successful demobilization of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas and their political legalization, the retirement of more than 40 senior military officers on corruption and narcotics charges, and the reduction of the army's strength by one-third. A truth commission mandated by the peace accords began receiving complaints of rights violations committed during the conflict. In a May 1999 referendum voters rejected a package of amendments to the constitution, approved by congress a year earlier, which had been prepared in accordance with the peace plan.

In early 2002 the former guerrillas of the URNG, seriously divided and unable to make electoral gains, offered a blunt assessment of the peace accords: "Genocide is no longer state policy." There is a general consensus that with the failure to implement substantive reforms redressing social and economic inequalities, the peace process is dead. This failure includes the government's inability to end the military's political tutelage and impunity, to fully recognize the rights of the Maya Indians, and to reform taxation to pay for health, educational, and housing programs for the poor.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government through elections. The November 1999 elections were largely free and fair. The 1985 constitution, amended in 1994, provides for a fouryear presidential term and prohibits reelection. A unicameral congress consisting of 113 members (increased from 80) is elected for four years. The constitution guarantees religious freedom and the right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions. Despite increasing freedoms, Guatemala has yet to end a tradition of military dominance. The demobilization, mandated by the peace accords, of the presidential bodyguard and military intelligence, the two units held most accountable for human rights abuses, has not taken place.

The judicial system remains ineffectual for most legal and human rights complaints. In general, it suffers from chronic problems of corruption, intimidation, insufficient personnel, lack of training opportunities, and a lack of transparency and accountability. Drug trafficking is a serious problem, and Guatemala remains a transit point for drugs going to the United States. On similar routes there is also extensive human trafficking, especially of illegal aliens from Asia en route to the United States; women and children are drawn into prostitution both locally and in neighboring countries.

Human rights organizations are the targets of frequent death threats and are victims of frequent acts of violence. In May, Guillermo Ovalle, who worked for an organization set up by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu, was assassinated in Guatemala City. As in other cases, no assailants have been identified or brought to trial. The indigenous population continues to be shut out from the national judicial system. Although indigenous languages are now being used in courtrooms around the country, traditional justice systems are mostly dismissed by Guatemalan authorities. Cursory recruitment efforts have resulted in only a handful of indigenous recruits for the National Civilian Police (PNC).

Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in Latin America. The closing of military barracks throughout the country--the armed forces were the one Guatemalan institution that had a truly national presence--while the PNC was being created and deployed created a vacuum in which criminal activity escalated. One result was an upsurge of vigilantism and lynchings. Neighborhood patrols--some armed with automatic weapons--have sprung up in an attempt to arrest the spiraling crime wave. Private security guards far outnumber the PNC. President Alfonso Portillo has called out army troops to assist the PNC in patrolling urban areas.

The press and most broadcast media outlets are privately owned; seven dailies are published in the capital, and six are local. There are several radio stations, most of them commercial. Four of the six television stations are commercially operated and are owned by the same financial interest. Reporters Sans Frontieres, a Paris-based organization, noted in June that journalists and human rights activists were targets of intimidation, including death threats. Guatemala has the second-highest rate of illiteracy in the Americas, 32 percent. Eighty percent of the population lives below poverty levels, and infant mortality among the Maya--some 60 percent of the population--is among the highest on the continent. Access to the Internet is not limited. The government does not interfere with academic freedom; however, academics have been targets of death threats.

Workers are frequently denied the right to organize and are subject to mass firings and blacklisting, particularly in export-processing zones, where the majority of workers are women. Existing unions are targets of intimidation, physical attack, and assassination, particularly in rural areas during land disputes. Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Guatemala has the highest rate of child labor in the Americas, with one-third of school-aged children forced to work on farms or in factories.